In a recent article on artists’ novels in frieze (issue 173), Nathaniel Budzinski noted the preponderance of double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-barrelled job titles in the contemporary art world. While this is attributable to a combination of economic exigency and the multi-platform nature of artistic labour in the 21st century, there remains the niggling sense that most of these renaissance men and women have only one true specialism and are winging it at the other two or three. Or, to put it a little more kindly, their dabbling in medium Y is really an offshoot of their primary engagement in medium X. A new short-story collection by the filmmaker Maija Timonen is a case in point. Ostensibly a meditation on the nature of love and attraction in contemporary culture, The Measure of Reality (BookWorks, 2015) is a critique of art-world precarity and economic austerity; the pernicious and self-reinforcing ‘pathology of loneliness’ she describes is both personal and political.
This small volume is made up of 20 sketches in which a female protagonist – a single, 30- something artist – broods over her relations with men and the world at large. To all appearances, it belongs in the tradition of ‘autofiction’ or literary memoir that is currently much in vogue, and concessions to novelistic style are commensurately scant. Any literary devices Timonen uses are mere cosmetic frills, a polite nod to the format. A preference for pronouns over proper nouns – ‘she’ for the protagonist, ‘he’ for the estranged beau or tentative love interest – is as far as the obliquity goes; the register is candid and explicatory, splicing critical-theory terminology with diaristic sincerity. Timonen’s narrative voice is an almost-parodic mélange of social-sciences touchstones – think Franz Fanon, Sigmund Freud, Germaine Greer and Karl Marx. But what the text lacks in literary interest is compensated for in its psychological and social insight.
A major preoccupation in these stories is the narcissistic dimension of love. In one story, the protagonist observes that all her crushes have ‘entailed a sense of expansion’, culminating in a ‘feeling, of really being the person she was, but more – of being more herself – by virtue of her desire’. This motif is rehearsed in another tale in which the heroine, reflecting on an occasion when she had felt an attraction so powerful she thought it might be love, recategorizes it as merely ‘a momentary crystallization of all that had been seeping through my skin, eyes and ears in the course of endless formative experiences and influences’. There is a risk here: when you really break it down, any authentic experience of what we might call ‘love’ could be reduced to these terms; one’s ‘true’ self and one’s place in the world are not so easily disentangled. Nevertheless, such intense inward scrutiny can illuminate the vicissitudes of emotional connection. This precis of mutual estrangement is likely to resonate with anyone who has experienced the gradual unraveling of attachment in a formerly intimate relationship: ‘In keeping his options open, he was in fact closing them all down […] attraction is never entirely one-sided, and for all their ability to love, most people’s affections had some core element of narcissism, that on some level they were sparked by the way a relationship or another person allowed them to see themselves in a new, favourable light.’
Inevitably, such a searingly honest work does not always make for comfortable reading. Barely a few lines after having bemoaned that ‘[s]he had never had or witnessed a heterosexual relationship she wanted to be in’, the protagonist of ‘The Psychopaths’ breezily pronounces that, ‘Other women compromised, in stoic solitude put in the emotional efforts that should have come from two people’ – presumably condemning all women in stable relationships to the condescension of victimhood. This trope recurs in another story, ‘The Profiler’, whose heroine takes an unhealthy interest in a man, a friend of a friend, and stalks him online before quite unexpectedly bumping into him and his wife at a social gathering. At this point, ‘(t)he locus of her imaginary intimacy now moves from him to his wife. She now not only feels close to the wife, but feels she knows something significant about her.’ The story ends with her noting that their hands, though together on the table, are not properly touching. There is, again, a classically misanthropic paradox at play here, of imputing false consciousness to people from a position of relative isolation: on the one hand purporting to feel completely different from most other women, while on the other hand claiming to know most other women better than they know themselves, and having special insights into their relationships.
We have become emotionally stingy — or, as people used to say disparagingly in the heydey of Free Love, 'uptight'.
There are occasional excesses in the form of sweeping remarks (‘The imperative to be sexually liberated forms the dominant ideology we live under.’ Does it?) and hyperbolic soundbites (‘This tyranny of enjoyment ...’). For the most part, though, this is a compelling psychological portrait, all the more convincing for its embrace of contradiction. In two stories, Timonen’s protagonist shares a gripe about men controlling the space around her: one scene centres on her habit of placing a post-coital glass of water precariously on the edge of a tabletop; in another, she has many dozens of browser tabs open at any one time on her laptop; in both, she is privately irritated when a man intervenes to propose a tidy-up. It is as though her penchant for disorder is both a source of ennui and integral to her sense of autonomy.
Timonen’s day job notwithstanding – aside from a couple of smaller, distinctly screenplay-esque vignettes – relatively little of the action in The Measure of Reality takes place outside the mind of the central protagonist. Her characters stew, recollect, chew the cud; power dynamics are examined every which way, self-doubt waxes and wanes. Some of the book’s strongest moments are poignant reflections on the things people do to cope with loneliness. The impulse to keep fit, for example, is both a panacea and a trap: ‘The more you invested […] in your well-being […] the more you felt like you were falling apart. And the more your “taking care of yourself” became an agent of your isolation.’ A similar vicious loop plays out in relation to socializing: in ‘The Prognosis’, a single woman resolves that, in order ‘to protect herself from the mental agitations and paranoia that came with having to enter social situations as a free agent’, it would be safer to assume that everyone was a ‘malignant force’, and to stay at home.
This alienation is, in turn, aggravated by the humiliations of economic activity. The freelancer in this condition is in a double-bind: her work is necessarily solitary, her social interactions mediated by, and not infrequently subjugated to, the demands of her occupation. Thus, we meet an artist who laments that her conversational repertoire at networking events is limited to ‘the deadening bullshit of her own spoken curriculum vitae’. Anyone who has embarked on a career in the arts will surely sympathize with this, as with the observation that: ‘One of the effects of a highly competitive environment was the lack of peer-to-peer affirmation.’ In a similar vein, the narrator of ‘The Sniffers’ observes that the straitened economic climate has raised the stakes of romantic involvement: ‘At times of increasing insecurity, the solace and support found in affective bonds becomes a crucial means of survival. You could not be profligate with your emotional energies anymore.’
We have become, in short, emotionally stingy – or, as people used to say disparagingly of the psychically reticent in the heyday of Free Love, ‘uptight’. It is a truism that the political spectrum shifts to the right during times of economic hardship; judging from the apparent ambivalence towards the sexual revolution that pervades The Measure of Reality, the principle might also hold true in the emotional sphere. An old-school, small-c conservatism is taking shape under the duress of self-preservation, an impulse all the more urgent in the enervating climes of a dating-app dystopia. Digital culture, which was supposed to deliver us from isolation, has instead inundated us with an oppressive superfluity of possibilities, mirroring the dizzying superabundance of the free market. We are besieged both by work and by each other. The need for a boundaried self has never been greater.
Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the Irish Times and the Spectator. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books).
First published in Issue 178